Questions answered and answers questioned!
Still in Israel, but I was able to churn this one out before I left and scheduled it to post. Sadly, couldn’t get issue 4 done in time so you’ll have to wait just a little longer for that one.
Hope you all enjoy!
“So,” Mr. Ross said from atop the cooler, “Where shall I begin?”
“How about with where you got the sssci-fi, sssuper taser,” Natalie suggested.
She had tried sitting on the folding chair Daniel had brought down, but couldn’t quite figure out how due to not really having a butt anymore. So, she’d given the chair to Daniel and instead coiled her tail under her in such a way that it acted kind of like a seat. It was oddly comfortable.
“Oh that’s simple really. My wife made it.”
“You’re married?” Daniel asked. He flinched as he realized how that must have sounded. “I mean…I’ve just never seen you with anyone at any school events. Other teachers bring their spouses, but you’re always alone.”
“Ah, yes,” Mr. Ross sighed. “I’m afraid that’s because she is my late wife as it were. She died five years ago in a car crash.”
“No need to apologize, my boy. You didn’t know. Besides, I’ve done my grieving and made my peace with her death.”
Natalie couldn’t put her finger on why, but she didn’t quite believe that. Something about his voice or body heat was off. But it didn’t matter right now.
“Why haven’t you sold it to someone?” she asked. “I’m sure police would love a better taser.”
Mr. Ross scoffed. “I tried to sell them the patent, but neither law enforcement nor the military were interested in non-lethal options.”
There was a sharp note of derision in his voice, which stung. Natalie’s mother was a police officer and she’d often heard her wish for better and safer takedown measures. Though she’d also heard the stories of more than a few officers who had gone a bit mad with power, so she supposed she could understand where her teacher’s scorn was coming from.
“Was your wife an engineer?” Daniel asked.
“In a manner of speaking,” Mr. Ross mused. “Though perhaps I am being too vague. I suppose I had best go back to the beginning.”
“Usually a good placcce to ssstart,” Natalie muttered.
“One would think so,” Mr. Ross remarked, “though I have not always found that to be the case. Anyhow…”
Their history teacher drew himself up and gazed into the distance, his eyes no longer seeing the present. Natalie knew this look. It appeared whenever Mr. Ross was going to tell a story that wasn’t included in their history textbooks. These stories were usually the highlight of his classes since they weren’t filled with pointless numbers and places. Only rolling out the TV was better than story time in his class.
“A long time ago,” he began, “so long ago that no records exist of this time or this place, a shard was found. This shard was painted with the silhouette of an animal—no one is quite sure which animal—and seemed to be made of pottery clay. But even this simple shard was of higher quality than any complete piece that the most skilled craftsmen in the land could produce.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Natalie saw Daniel shiver.
“This shard eventually made its way to the ruler of the land, who gave it to, what we might call today, his chief advisor to learn how to replicate the workmanship. The advisor spent many days and nights working to uncover the secrets of the shard, but to no avail. One night however, after pushing himself to exhaustion, his hand slipped and he cut himself on the shard. His blood fell upon the shard, which appeared to drink it in until there was no stain left upon the pottery. As the blood disappeared, the advisor felt a sudden rush of power sourcing through his veins. Senses sharpened, muscles bulged, ferocity grew. With the spilling of his blood, he had gained the powers of the animal depicted on its surface.”
Now it was Natalie’s turn to shiver. Her mind flashed back to waking up for the first time in her new body. She was thankful she hadn’t been conscious during the change itself.
“Eventually, the strength faded from his body, but the advisor feared what an army empowered by such a shard could accomplish. So he secreted himself, his family, and the shard—which he dubbed an Ark Shard—out of the palace. They traveled the world—or as much of it as they could reach on foot—for many years, searching for other ark shards and hiding them away from those who would use them for evil. Eventually though the advisor died, and with him the family’s days of travel. They settled in what is today known as the country of Greece, specifically the city of Delphi.”
“Wait,” Daniel interjected. “Does that mean that the Oracle of Delphi had actual powers?”
“In a sense. Many tales of ancient gods and heroes were inspired by those wielding ark shards.”
“How do you get the power to predict the future from animals?” Natalie asked.
“You don’t,” Mr. Ross said. “That was one part superstition and religious belief, and one part scam. Many of the advisor’s descendants believed themselves chosen by fate or the gods to guide humanity to some glorious future. Many sought to conquer the world but were always kept in check by their relatives.”
“And let me guesss,” Natalie said. “You’re one of the advisor’sss descccendantsss fighting against a cabal of evil relativesss bent of world domination—or sssomething—and wiping out the ‘good’ ssside of the family.”
Mr. Ross looked taken aback and a little horrified.
“Goodness, no!” he said. “Perish the thought I be related to any side of that family. And before you ask, no there is no great family war. Only a few members of the original lineage remain that know of the ark shards and they are all part of the same organization.”
“What organization is that?” Daniel asked.
“I was getting there,” Mr. Ross huffed. He cleared his throat and resumed his thousand-yard stare before starting his story again.
“As time marched on, the ravages of history took their toll on the family. Soon they could not manage the ark shards alone and began to recruit apprentices from outside the family. But with this expansion came a need for a name. Simply calling themselves ‘the family’ no longer worked. So they titled themselves as Omphalos.”
“The heck isss an Omphalosss?” Natalie asked.
“It’s an ancient Greek word,” Daniel answered. “It technically means ‘navel’ but that’s used as a metaphor for the center of the world. It’s also the name of the stone that Zeus’s mother used tricked the titan Chronos into eating instead of her child.”
Natalie mulled this over in her head. “Ssso they’re a bunch of sssnobsss who think the world revolvesss around them and for sssome reassson needed to give a name to a rock. Got it.”
Mr. Ross chuckled. “They are rather pretentious. It’s part of the reason my wife and I left.”
“So you were part of Omphalos?” Daniel asked.
“We were, though they go by a very different name now in official circles. See, back when the United Nations was founded, the leaders of Omphalos made a deal with the fledgling world alliance. Omphalos would work for the UN in exchange for protection and funding. Under the UN’s control they are now called the ISRD, the International Supernatural Research Division, and have expanded from just safeguarding the ark shards to studying them and other strange and unusual phenomenon.”
“I’ve never heard of the ISRD,” Daniel said.
“Well they wouldn’t be a very good covert organization if you had. They’re still known as Omphalos to their agents, which at one point included my wife and myself.”
Natalie wished she had a chair to sink into. This was a lot. First she turns into a half-snake thing, then she fights another weird hybrid, and now she was learning that her tweed jacket wearing history professor was a retired super-spy from an ancient order of people dedicated to the very shards which had turned her into this freak of nature. It felt like her whole world was being turned inside out, upside down, and shaken not stirred. And to think, a couple of days ago her biggest worry involving Mr. Ross was whether she’d get a passing grade on her end of the year project.
Her head was spinning so much from all the information it was trying to digest that she nearly missed what Daniel said next.
“This is so cool! You were like a married couple version of James Bond!”
“Thank you, my boy,” Mr. Ross said, puffing up like a peacock. “It’s nice to talk to someone about this after so long.”
“Has Omphalos discovered more about the ark shards? Or are they still just as mysterious as in ancient times?”
“Well, my wife and I retired nearly ten years ago from the ISRD, but I do remember that they were finally able to crack one secret of the ark shards, which makes their name even more accurate. As it turns out, the shards are partially composed of crystalized DNA sequences. We hypothesized at the time that the original purpose of the ark shards was to act as a safeguard in order to repopulate the Earth in the case of a mass extinction event.”
“But you still have no idea who created them in the first place?”
“Not a clue I’m afraid,” Mr. Ross sighed. “Even after all this time, our knowledge of the ark shards remains agonizingly primitive. For example, nothing like what has happened to Natalie, and supposedly the other missing students, has ever been recorded.”
Natalie’s head snapped up. “Never?”
Mr. Ross shook his head. “No one has ever had an ark shard imbedded into them before or undergone such a drastic transformation due to their influence. Tell me, is there any sort of wound or scar left from the impact?”
Natalie checked her chest where she remembered feeling the shard pierce her flesh. There was nothing but smooth scales. She shook her head.
“Fascinating,” Mr. Ross mused, stroking his beard with a hand. “Absolutely fascinating.”
“Are you sure nothing like thisss hasss happened before?” she pressed.
“Nothing that I’m aware of. I was one of the top historical researchers in ISRD in my prime. If an incident like this had occurred, we would have studied it intensely.”
Natalie’s heart was beating fast and her hands trembled.
“Isss there any chanccce they could indo thisss?” she asked, desperately clutching to any chance.
Her heart sank as Mr. Ross shook his head.
“I’m certain things have changed since my wife and I left,” he said, “but I doubt anything as groundbreaking as that.”
“Can you pleassse check?” she begged. “You usssed to work for them. Can’t you tell them about thisss and maybe call in a favor?”
Mr. Ross held her gaze for several seconds.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, pulling out an old flip-phone. “I intended on reporting this in to them anyways. I’ll see if I can pull a few strings. Give me just a moment, please.”
He stood and stepped away, speaking too quietly to be heard into the phone at the edge of the lamp’s light.
Daniel leaned in close.
“Why do you want to go back to being normal so bad?” he whispered.
She stared at him.
“Are you kidding?” she said, gesturing at her reptilian form. “Look at me.”
She hissed in annoyance. “I’m a hideous, horrifying abomination. I can barely look at my own reflection.”
“But you have superpowers!” he whisper-shouted, a giddy smile on his face. “You have infrared vision, super-fast punches, quicker reflexes, greater flexibility. You can do so much cool stuff!”
“Oh yeah? Well you know one thing I can’t do? I can’t go home or sleep in my own bed or see my parents or friends without getting shot at. Once I get this stupid shard taken out of me, I’m going home and never thinking about it ever again.”
Daniel was silent for a moment, his face having turned very serious.
“What about the others?” he asked.
“What about them?”
“You’re not the only one who was changed by the ark shards. And you heard the way Mr. Ross talked about the ISRD. They may help you, but I get the feeling they aren’t ‘the good guys’ here. If the other shard-changed act like the one who just attacked us, then I get the feeling Omphalos may not care how they get the shards, so long as they get them.”
“And what am I sssupposssed to do about that?”
“If you take the others down or bring them in then Omphalos has no justification for taking lethal measures.”
“Me!?” Natalie almost squawked.
“Yes, you! You went toe-to-toe with that weasel guy.”
“That was one person. Besides, why should I be responsible for what happens to them? I just want to get back to my normal life.”
Even as she said it, a pang of guilt stabbed her heart. Jamie was probably one of the ones hit by an ark shard. Could she really leave her friend out there alone and just go back to home and school?
“Why would you want to go back to being normal?” Daniel hissed, desperately trying to keep his voice below Mr. Ross’s hearing. “Why would you want to be normal when you could be a superhero? I would do anything to have what you have right now, to walk even one step in your shoes.”
“I don’t even have shoes anymore,” she said, flicking the end of her tail up in front of his face. “And I’m not a superhero.”
Daniel opened his mouth to reply, but stopped when Mr. Ross snapped his phone shut and turned around to face them. His face was unreadable.
“They said they’ll send in some agents when they get a chance,” he said. Natalie’s hopes rose a couple of inches. “But right now, we have a problem.” And then dropped back down another foot.
“What kind of problem?” she asked, dreading the answer.
“Reports are flooding into their office of strange sightings all over town. And one of them turned hostile.”